All posts by sobsey

Visiting Denis Johnson in Idaho

I was an MFA writing fellow at the University of Texas while Denis Johnson was teaching in the program. Denis saw a production of one of my plays and liked it, and we got to know each other a little. In the summer of 2002, I happened to be driving to Idaho and Denis invited me to visit him at his home in the panhandle. Before I drove up from Moscow, a few hours south, I asked him if there was anything I could bring. Some half and half, please. It was a half-hour drive to the nearest store from the Johnsons’ house.

The property bordered on a federal wilderness area on one side and Canada on another. Denis told me to look for a gate and a sign that said “Doce Pasos North.” The reference, he explained, unnecessarily but as a sort of formal declamation, a diplomatic laying-aside of the entire matter, was to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. “I used to be quite the drinker,” he said, in a way that was at once offhand but definitive, understatement so laconic that it seemed intended to draw a vast pandemonium into a plainly marked but remote container. (I think he also told me he liked the name’s homophonic resemblance to John Dos Passos.)

Parked outside the house was a large vintage Cadillac convertible. Denis had bought it while he was in Texas, the crowning accessory to a general re-costuming he had undertaken when he was teaching there (cowboy hat, boots). It was a great car, he said, he’d always wanted a car like that, although he allowed that this collectible was now up in the weather of northern Idaho and was I interested in buying it. He was willing to give me a good deal and he had a price already in mind. About a decade earlier, when Jesus’ Son came out, I was talking about the book with a colleague who said he liked it but sniffed in it something of a put-on. In Idaho, Denis told me: “I wrote it because I needed money.” Continue reading Visiting Denis Johnson in Idaho


A New and Unique Region of Hell: Notes on the ACC basketball season

Since I stopped covering local college basketball for the Indy I’ve begun each late autumn telling myself I was done with college basketball. The NCAA is outmoded and corrupt; the whole big-money contraption puts outrageous pressure on kids, who don’t get any of the money and are made to take the fall when the systems around them fail; the NCAA is hopelessly outmoded and corrupt; we’re enabling rageaholic coaches like Frank Martin and Larry Eustachy (and so many other ones who don’t make the news because their exorbitant rage is normalized by the environment); college sports are provincial to a dangerous and stupid degree; the NCAA is hopelessly outmoded and grotesquely corrupt. And then every year I wind up getting interested. Well, I live in Durham, North Carolina, the son of a UNC professor and the husband of a woman with three degrees from Duke. Even LeBron James just said, in so many words, that the Duke-Carolina rivalry is one of the very greatest in sports, and I’m a sports person. I will never be done with college basketball.

Continue reading A New and Unique Region of Hell: Notes on the ACC basketball season

On Vin Scully

I said I’d write something about his last broadcast if I had a baseball-writing gig. But what’s a gig anyway? Money? As a character in one of my own short stories says: “Oh, brother. If money is all you ever think about, you’ll always make just enough to need more of it.”

Anyway, a handful of people said they’d read it if I wrote it, so this is for that handful of people. I said it would be “the best.” It’s not. It’s just the best I can do today. I didn’t make any notes during the broadcast. Consider these my notes, summoned and misquoted from memory — which is so much of what Vin did for sixty-seven years: activate (but not misquote) memory while attending to the demands of the moment on the field. I wrote them quickly and didn’t really edit them. Well, you can’t edit a broadcast, either.

Continue reading On Vin Scully

Eligible Dentist: Gene Wilder and Grace

Facebook: Alice Cooper

I searched for the television show Eligible Dentist online and got exactly one result, from IMDB: “A failed TV pilot about a recently widowed dentist who must take care of his three kids (1993).” If you don’t click further, the cast list goes like this: “Dylan Baker, Jill Clayburgh, Francis Dumaurier (See full cast & crew).”

Eligible Dentist — surely one of the worst-named TV shows of all time — was actually a sitcom vehicle for Gene Wilder, who passed away late last month. I was a Production Assistant on the show, which never aired. It was my first job out of college, and I got it because as an undergraduate I was a friend of the stepdaughter of the show’s Executive Producer, David Seltzer. Seltzer wrote (or perhaps rewrote), uncredited, the screenplay for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), and he and Wilder had been close ever since.

Seltzer is probably best known for writing the horror movie The Omen (1976). When I asked Seltzer, after he hired me, how he had gone from the wacky Willy Wonka to the satanic Damien, I recall him answering, “The head of my studio said to me, You know The Exorcist? I said, Of course. He said, Write me one of those.”

In order to get the job, I called Seltzer every week for a month, as instructed by his stepdaughter. David’s busy, she said. Keep calling. Seltzer was busy because, unbeknownst to me, Eligible Dentist had in fact already shot its “failed TV pilot” before I was hired. The pilot, and the show it introduced, was evidently a whimsical semi-fantasia — naturally befitting Wilder’s presence and career, of course — in which Wilder’s character, a recent widower, was “living a double life,” according to Seltzer in a recent interview (conducted, as it happens, by a college classmate who once acted in a play of mine). In the episodes, he would be followed around by and interact freely with his recently deceased, beloved wife as if she were still alive, while also conducting his daily orthodontic and personal business — including being pushed back into “dating” by his friends and colleagues. (I do not have a memory of the widower having three children to raise on his own, as IMDB’s description of Eligible Dentist has it.)

According to Seltzer, the premise for the show arose during a lunchtime conversation with Wilder, who told him offhandedly about a conversation he’d had the previous night, as he did on most nights, with “Gilda.” Gilda Radner, the wife with whom Wilder “shared a soul,” Seltzer said, had been dead for three years. It was Seltzer’s idea to make Wilder’s recurring paranormal experiences with her the conceit for a television show, which NBC Productions bought in 1992 or early 1993.

The pilot “was great,” Seltzer said; “Gene and I loved the tone.” It was shot in the spring of 1993. The NBC executives saw it, heard from Seltzer that the second episode “was going to be all in dance. Gene was a wonderful dancer,” Seltzer said. The legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp was to be involved. Probably quite alarmed, NBC scrapped not only the pilot but most of the fantasy and whimsy behind it. An actor or two was replaced (including Jane Adams, as I recall, who popped up playing drugged-up or spaced-out weirdos in later movies like Wonder Boys and Little Children). New scriptwriters were brought in. Seltzer, a movie man who had little or no television experience, was in the midst of regrouping when he hired me, and he was probably not in the greatest of moods about this regrouping since it of course involved not just new personnel but, more dismaying, a vitiation of his and Wilder’s original vision for the show.

Eligible Dentist was based at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Long Island City, Queens. For my new job, I had a reverse commute, taking the subway out of Manhattan in the morning and back in at the end of the day. For the first few weeks, in midsummer, there was almost nothing to do. The new crew was being arranged; things well over my head were being put in place. I went into Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens at nine, hung around the office, and left at five. I was given easy, boring tasks by the Line Producer, who ate McDonald’s for lunch every single day but didn’t look unhealthy except that he had the hunched shoulders and froggish face of the perpetually put-upon, one of those constitutionally dour people who doesn’t need to be. But perhaps that’s what made him a good Line Producer: expecting things to go wrong, because they always did. Eligible Dentist went wrong. Eligible Dentist had already gone wrong before I got there, and it was doomed.

Continue reading Eligible Dentist: Gene Wilder and Grace

Prospects Are Bullshit

It can be so fun to read baseball writing with hindsight. I went back to the Baseball Prospectus 2015 Annual (for which I wrote a team essay and some player comments) and had a look at Andy McCullough‘s essay on the Kansas City Royals, which it turned out I had not read even once. That I had not read it says something about what even professional baseball writers tended to think about Kansas City’s chances going into 2015: better to read about other teams first. The Royals weren’t likely to be good again.

McCullough’s essay argues that the Royals will be good again 2015. So he has gotten it exactly right. It doesn’t matter if he has his causes wrong, because who can know about causes, really? Essentially, he’s arguing that the James Shields trade—which was front and center in my world back in 2012-13, when I was still covering the Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate)—was a great trade for the Royals no matter how Shields ended up pitching (which was not better than pretty decently) or if he left after his contract was up (which he did). McCullough suggests that Shields’s mere presence on the team, for as long as it lasted, and in multiple ways, had a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats effect, and the the waters were likely to stay high after Shields was gone.

So now the Royals are two wins away from a World Series title.

When a writer gets it right, especially in the face of a lot of people thinking he’ll turn out to be wrong—Baseball Prospectus’s staff had Kansas City finishing fourth in the five-team American League Central—you take the other things he thinks very seriously, and McCullough thinks “prospects are bullshit.” This is the axis of his essay about the Royals: that prospects are bullshit. I am a (former) minor-league beat writer who has been writing about prospects since 2009: watching them, interviewing them, assessing them, building narratives around them. The opinion that prospects are bullshit gets my attention. Yet the attention it gets from me is that he’s absolutely right. McCullough is absolutely right. They’re bullshit. Not the players themselves. The players, including (especially) minor-league players, whether they’re on PEDs or not, are the most authentic part of baseball. Most of them are doing the best they can to make themselves major leaguers. (Note: Wil Myers was not doing the best he could when he was in Durham). What’s bullshit is the more abstract notion of prospects, which is essentially an invention of writers: entities writers can evaluate in terms of future production. Doing this is a fool’s errand, a mug’s game, and it becomes more foolish and more mugging—as in, mugging for the camera, the internet, the book—as the gap between the majors and minors widens.

McCullough is careful (and kind) to add that “prospect writers aren’t the problem. They can only work with the materials they have,” and “those materials are bullshit.” I appreciate this defense of writers, of me. You’d expect a writer to mount this defense—we protect our own—but I don’t think it’s true. Prospect writers are the problem, or a large part of it. Almost every case we make has to be overstated. We have to try to see things no one else sees, so we see things that aren’t there, or things that are there now but almost surely won’t be later. Even the best experts in the world are usually wrong most of the time: scouts, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus; usually wrong. This is what we should say about ourselves: we’re usually wrong. I run across professional evaluators all the time, and it amazes me how much more they appear to think they know than they actually do, or ever can. What we ought to do, as a matter of professional discipline, is throw up our hands and say, well, best guess. Even a blind squirrel.

Baseball players will often say that the game has a way of humbling them. If only it would humble the rest of us, too.

Headhunter Carignane 2012

IMG_0359I think the delight is in finding something no one seems to have found. It’s so hard to do that anymore, whether you’re trying to or not. One of the constant disappointments of the new world we live in, online and off, is how little unexplored territory remains. This isn’t just the romance of being the first one down the unknown river, although there is that. It’s wanting some privacy, places and things that aren’t poked and prodded until they’ve lost their shape, nor beset by noise. I’m writing a biography of a musician who has just published her own memoirs. It’s an enjoyable project and I’m seeing and saying things that I don’t think have been said about or by her, but part of me just wants to leave her alone. Facticity is our abiding condition, or factitiousness. I’m not sure.

On Friday, we were on our way up to Virginia to visit my wife’s family and stopped to get coffee in Richmond at a pleasant place my wife knows, not far off the interstate. It’s also a little grocery store—the kind, my wife points out, downtown Durham sorely needs—and they sell wine. We wanted to show up at the folks’ place with a bottle or two. Nothing fancy, just wine we could drink with dinner (which turned out to be steak and lobster, yikes). I picked out a wine from southern France whose producer I didn’t recognize. Part of the fun of traveling is that I find wines by importers whose wines don’t find their way to North Carolina, so there are hundreds of bottles I’ve never seen before. In our good but somewhat insular market, I see the same wines over and over again. The Roussillon was $12. I remember nothing else about it.

Then I passed the closeout bin and saw, amid the junky prosecco (prosecco being, in my opinion, pretty much inherently junky), a bottle with a funny-looking label bearing the name “Headhunter.” In our peculiar marketing era, a name like that (and a funny-looking label) can belong to a tiny handmade thing or to a mass-produced, assembly-line product, with equal likelihood, because we’re running out of names as surely as we’re running out of unexplored territory. Hence the spate of horrendous band names in recent years, even (or especially) around here: I Was Totally Destroying It, Hammer No More The Fingers; I’ll stop there. (Actually, I won’t: we had a recent nano-dustup in Durham when a restaurateur announced that his new place would be called “Hattie Mae Called Me Captain.” People objected because Hattie Mae was apparently the black housekeeper or nanny who fed the white restaurateur scrambled-egg-and-jelly sandwiches when he was a tyke, but hardly anyone objected on the grounds that it was a terrible, terrible, unsightly, ungainly name no matter its provenance. He withdrew it, as he should have. Had he just called it Hattie Mae’s, or even Hattie’s, and kept his mouth shut about it, probably no one would have complained. But an ugly, pretentious name like that demanded an explanation, and it was the ugliness and its explanation that got his fingers hammered.)

I looked at the back of the bottle, where the real information is, and discovered that Headhunter was very much a tiny handmade thing. “100% Whole Cluster Old-Vine Carignane from Mendocino,” it says. “65 Cases Produced.” And not much else. Reading that, and “Alc. 13.0% by vol.,” I was sold. All of the above is code for: small-production wine, probably made by young people, using a light hand in the cellar. This description fits what Jon Bonne, the San Francisco wine writer, has called “the New California Wine,” and although there is plenty to quibble with, ideologically speaking, in what that term represents, there is mostly a lot to like and support. The wine, after closeout discounting, was $16. Sold.

You can look up whole-cluster and Carignane if you want to. I can even try to describe the Headhunter, but what could really be stupider than tasting notes? My sister-in-law did not like this wine at all. My sister-in-law doesn’t drink much wine and knows very little about it. When I told her there were 65 cases of Headhunter Carignane 2012, she asked me if that was a lot or a little. If you give the wine (not that you’re likely ever to find it) to someone who doesn’t drink much wine, be prepared for that person to dislike it. It isn’t oaky, or big and blowsy, or usual in any way. I’m not even sure I can say I liked it, although I drank it happily. The wine appeared to be more than merely unfiltered. Instead of a bunch of sediment at the bottom, it had tiny little particles floating all in it, which did not affect its drinkability (and also a lot of sediment at the bottom). It was not “green,” as is often said of “hipster” wine. It was very grapey, sort of foot-stomped and backyardy, in a way that made me want to drink it in a Berkeley backyard at about four in the afternoon. I believed the “old-vine” claim, because there was something about it that struck me as, how do I put this, mature meets immature: young winemakers making an early-career wine out of old fruit.

Well, what could be more pleasurable than turning out to be right? I discovered that Headhunter Carignane 2012, which we drank most of, was the very first vintage produced by a husband and wife team in northern California, and that the reason it was in a Richmond, Virginia wine shop despite having yielded just 65 cases is that the couple comes from Virginia. This made me very happy. I was also happy to discover that their other wine, an Albarino, was produced in a similarly tiny quantity. I was happy to learn that I was drinking the first vintage they ever made, out of the last bottle in a closeout bin in their home state—something far from home and also close to home, and about to vanish. It was the last of its kind, and here I am the first to say something about it. I’m so glad that I get to do this.

I’m looking forward to the next wines these people produce, although I am unlikely ever to see them. I doubt it’s sold in North Carolina. It will never make its way into the wine column I write for a mostly unread magazine in a small enclave of the state. But I’m so happy for the winemakers, and for me. And I find that even though I opened this bottle five days ago and there’s still a little wine left in it (that is too oxidized to drink by now), I can’t abide the idea of getting rid of the bottle. We drove it home from Virginia and it’s sitting on the kitchen counter, like a lucky charm.

Bring Me the Head of Jake Arrieta

I’ve been thinking a fair amount lately about the Durham Bulls team of 2009, the first team I ever covered. Not the best, but certainly the most interesting player on that team, was Justin Ruggiano. Ruggiano was a decent player — by which I mean one of the thousand best in the world — who needed to get out of the Tampa Bay Rays organization in order to make a few million dollars in the major leagues. I think I learned more about the difference between the majors and minors from watching him play, and from talking to him, than from any other player I covered in six years in Durham.

It wasn’t just that “half this game is ninety percent mental,” as the famous Danny Ozark or Yogi Berra baseball axiom has it. It had something to do with attitude, and personality, and with taking it personally. I’ll probably write more about that, and Ruggiano, later, but the reason I do so now, as nothing more than a preface, has to do with the first time I saw attitude and personality and taking it personally in true action on a baseball diamond. It was something that happened between Justin Ruggiano and Jake Arrieta in 2009. Continue reading Bring Me the Head of Jake Arrieta

My one-second stand with Mick Jagger

I was tending bar the other night, my usual Monday shift, around nine o’clock, when our manager started acting flustered and put upon even though the restaurant wasn’t busy. A little while later, I went into the kitchen with an armload of dishes and glasses. The door into the kitchen from the bar is directly opposite another door, on the exterior wall, that leads out into the side parking lot, where no one actually parks: it’s small and narrow, mainly a way to get to the larger rear lot, and it has no designated spaces; the dumpsters are the main things there. The distance between these two doors is about thirty feet along a fairly narrow passage hemmed in by the expediting line on side, and on the other by the gamut of the coffee station, bread station, fridges, dehydrator, etc. Staff use the door to the parking lot to carry trays to the private dining rooms, which are in an adjacent building.

Coming toward me through that door were two of the Rolling Stones, led by Mick Jagger. The other one was Ron Wood.

I could go into some detail, which I learned later from our manager, about how this unusual entrance, and the dinner reservation for half the world’s most famous rock band, was arranged, but you can probably conjure that in your head: security detail calls the restaurant, then comes to case the joint; rejects the private dining room (why? I don’t know, but perhaps people that famous would like not to live in isolation all the time, to have someone other than their personal chefs occasionally cook for them); asks about alternative entrances to the building; etc. The SUV the two Stones arrived in sat right outside the kitchen door, idling, for the duration of their dinner.

The door leading into the dining room from the kitchen is about equidistant from the doors into the kitchen from the bar and the parking lot, and neither Mick nor I had the clear advantage on it from our respective approaches. We had an approximately one-second interaction, perhaps shorter than that, wordless, which communicated, entirely from him to me, via the eyes and body language (and what a body it is, and what language it can convey), all of the following. Please excuse the lengthy syntax, I’ve been on a Proust kick lately.

1) I’m sorry I’m in your way, what with that big stack of dishes you’re carrying;

2) it’s awkward to enter a restaurant through the kitchen, not least because I’m unused to proximity to the sorts of people who work in them, which at the moment includes you–although, alas, entering restaurants through their kitchen doors is a necessity with which I’ve become quite familiar, although perhaps not quite inured to, not least because of the heat and wet and blood and noise and general frenzy of kitchens but also, more theoretically but no more abstractly, because alienation from the means of production (I really mean of the consumer from the worker and the worker’s produce more than the more Marxist idea of the worker from his or her own produce and self, although in this moment, my mere momentary presence near these workers to some degree alienates those workers from themselves, if they happen to look up from their cooking and recognize me, which none of them happens to be doing, and in any case two-thirds of them are Mexicans, unfamiliar with my band, and wouldn’t recognize me even if they looked up from their cooking and see me) is something all of us, not just I, as a millionaire many times over and generally insulated from the production environment, strongly prefer and seek out in all relations with what we consume;

3) oh, and by “I”: no, your eyes are not deceiving you, it’s really me, Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones;

4) and as such, although “Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones,” is in fact merely a character I play–a worker alienated from himself, in a sense, although perhaps not entirely, and perhaps not in the Marxian sense, for much of that alienation from himself is caused by the very fame of the character, a fame conferred on him by people like you, the worker, carrying plates toward me from the other side of the kitchen–it is also a fact that I must play this character in all public environments, or even a very good dinner (indeed even before the very good dinner begins, while I’m coming across the kitchen);

5) and as my fame as this character makes my well-being and my safety of cardinal importance to hundreds of millions of people and, in fact, to history, regrettable though it is, if we were to collide and you were to knock me over, or break a glass in the collision and cut me, and I had to go to the hospital, the repercussions would be unthinkably grave, both culturally and economically;

6) there is thus no question that even (yea, especially!) if you were rushing toward the dish pit engulfed in flames while simultaneously under attack from a wild boar, I would still have priority for the door that opens into the civilized space of the dining room: I’m sorry this is so, this unjust and really rather arbitrary imbalance of status between the character you play when you dress for the night (bartender) and the one I play (Mick Jagger, lead singer of the most famous rock band in the world since the Beatles broke up, before you were born)–but these are the breaks, aren’t they, in life, or at least in this one, and so you’re going to have to cede the way and allow to me to exit into the dining room before you cross the kitchen with your precarious and slightly alarming armload of dishes and stemware.

I am pretty immune to celebrity. Right out of college, I had a job working on a TV show that starred Gene Wilder and a host of other screen stars, and I didn’t see what the big deal was, not least because of their wizened faces up close and desiccated bodies and vain petty celebrity requirements (e.g. I remember what a pain it was to get a treadmill into Carol Kane’s little dressing room). Then I worked in the office of the company of the most famous choreographer of the second half of the twentieth century, and saw and talked with him often and poured him more wine. After that I worked for arguably the hippest theater company in the world, one of whose members was also a famous movie actor, and even more famous people would come to see him act; so coming face to face with Madonna, Al Pacino, John McEnroe, etc. was just something that was part of my job. And when you live in New York City generally, you become accustomed to things like peeing next to Lou Reed at Film Forum.

But this was Mick Jagger, possibly the most famous, most iconic entertainer of his time–and, importantly, his time is a long time. The Rolling Stones played their first gig a year before John Kennedy was shot (“I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ When after all, it was you and me”). The sheer span of Jagger’s fame, which has never perceptibly waned–largely because the Rolling Stones have always been together–is overwhelming, a force of nature.

So is his presence. You hear this word sometimes, presence, when people are talking about celebrities. Most famous people don’t actually have presence, though. It’s constructed for them by cameras and rarefied settings and such. Kevin Costner sat at my friend’s pool party for two hours once, unnoticed. When I worked for that theater company, I was setting up for a post-show benefit reception and, confused about the schedule, Marisa Tomei showed up an hour early. Rather than leave and come back, she waited in the empty space, alone except for me, and mostly just tried sheepishly to stay out of my way–not necessary, because I barely noticed her.

Mick Jagger has presence. He is, as you probably know, quite small, as many celebrities are (Al Pacino was tiny, Madonna was tiny, Patricia Arquette was tiny). But from him emanates the [???] that separates the few from the many–and those few are not all celebrities. There are “regular” people who walk into a room–a bar, a bank–and get looked at, made way for, space expands around them and energy accrues to it; this happens quite apart from their lack of public stature. Mick Jagger’s presence isn’t a product of his fame, nor a cause of it. It simply but forcefully exists in him, from him, inalienable, ineffable, and nonreacting.

I stopped right there in my tracks and let him pass.

The rest of the evening passed without incident. Mick and Ron didn’t drink much–one beer each, I was told, or something like that. Mick had the quail, which is served with mole sauce and black bean succotash. I was a little surprised he ordered something so heavily seasoned and sauced. He asked for the air conditioning to be turned off, because cold canned dry air is bad for singers’ voices. One of the female companions, presumably a girlfriend, sent back her salmon (there was nothing wrong with it, she just ordered the wrong dish for her). Their three-man security detail sat two tables away and kept close watch on the dining room around them in case any of the fine dining masses should misbehave. The only time I went into the dining room while the party was in there, I heard Ron asking his companion, solicitously, with what sounded like overweening concern, “D’ye feel alright? Do ya feel alright?”

I already had tickets to the Rolling Stones’ show in Raleigh, which was last night. I got these via the “Lucky Dip” promotion, whereby a limited window opens on a limited number of really cheap tickets soon after sales begin. They were $29 each, which is to say, after you pay the Ticketmaster/Satan/Grant’s Tomb National Maintenance surcharges, $41. The idea behind these Lucky Dip tickets is not only to give a few enterprising (and poor) people a swell deal, but also to keep scalpers from reselling them. The way it works, or was said to work, is that you are not given actual tickets. You show up at the door with your ID; without it you can’t claim the tickets. Once you claim them, you may not leave the venue (and scalp them), and you are escorted to your seats by an usher. In reality, it was a good deal less military and efficient than that, but the anti-scalping measure was successful, so this is overall a promotion I can endorse–not least because I never would have paid the prices other people were paying for tickets: $85, $139, $1,000+. As the proprietor of the used book and record shop I frequent, put it when I told him I had tickets, “Good. Everyone should see the Grand Canyon.” And those were approximately the stakes for me: something I thought I should see in my lifetime, but not something I cared to pay more for than I pay for my monthly water bill.

I was nonchalant largely because I fall hard on the Beatles side of the Great Divide, although, like most white males, in my twenties I had a season-long stretch when I couldn’t stop listening to Exile on Main Street. (I haven’t read Keith Richards’s book, though, although my father has. I bought it for him. I think that must say something about what I think of the Stones.) I think I might not even have recognized a single one of the Stones’ non-hits until today, when, having learned via the late, great Scott Miller’s book, Music: What Happened? that XTC’s Andy Partridge, in a survey of musicians, named “Citadel” as his favorite Stones song, I played it three times, and I’m now listening to the widely dismissed album Their Satanic Majesties’ Request, the band’s only self-produced album–because the producer got fed up with the drugs and groupies and general dissolution and quit–and thinking I might need to buy it. (It’s really weird and neat, and has the chutzpah to include several seconds of the sound of snoring). Still, I thought it was worth $29 or $41 to see the Grand Canyon, and as it happened, the show date was my wife’s birthday. Sold.

We never went to went to our seats, which were terrible. We watched, standing, from the lip of the concourse across the football stadium, not unimaginably a quarter mile from the stage. And even at that distance, it was hard to stop watching Mick Jagger, even though you could watch the megavision screens on either side of the stage. This is what presence is: it is visible at close range, in a kitchen; and it is visible in a football stadium, from a quarter mile away. It’s not merely that Jagger was out there giving us the full measure and range of his body language: jumping, shaking, shimmying, running; he’s in incredible shape, and turns 72 this month. Nor was it that he was under what was probably the brightest spotlight on the stage (I bet by some sort of hard-won contractual requirement). It was that he was even larger than the larger-than-life stage environment around him, more vivid than the dreamworld built around him. He was entirely comfortable commanding, ringleading, a football stadium and everyone in it, comfortable being the human presence at the heart of a cosmic phenomenon. My mind kept running the confounding math that tried to equate that figure, at once antlike and godlike, with the one I had seen quietly eating a late dinner two nights earlier. There are very, very few people on earth who have not just the ego but also the mental and physical strength to do what Mick Jagger has been doing for fifty years and not to lose an ounce of power or presence. He made Ron Wood look tiny, weightless. He often made Keith Richards seem like a mere mascot.

That is not to say that the other Stones were insignificant. Because Mick and Keith are the icons of the band, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Keith and Ron are one of the great one-two lead-guitar punches in rock history. On the few occasions when the two of them would go a-dueling, with their guitars both loud and lacerating in the mix, I could have listened to that for a long time: the raw, ionic, over-saturated, almost brawling and drunken sound of it. David Menconi, in his newspaper review of the show, pointed out that the mix was overall not very good. He was right, I guess, but I didn’t care at all about that. The guitars were loud and occasionally painful, too loud; Mick was loud, everything and everyone fought for volume space in the mix, and that seemed just about right to me. This band is still impolite. And in any case, what they do has nothing to do with clarity. Complaining about that is like complaining that fireworks are too loud, or too bright.  Loud and bright are the point. And turning everything up is still, after all these years, as legitimate part of what it means to rock as a I-IV-V chord progression. It’s only rock and roll until you push past ordinary thresholds; then it can transform into something ferocious, powerful and intoxicating.

Menconi also news-and-observed that the ragged jamming–there were expansive solos, call-and-response and such in all of them, I think–extended the songs to an average length of seven minutes. I had barely noticed that. Yes, a couple of songs got fatiguing, but I was really glad they weren’t delivered as carbon copies of their studio versions. You felt the band was actually out there performing, being in the moment–even a slick, expensive, carefully managed moment (I disagreed with Menconi that the show was “sloppy”; it just wasn’t planned to the square inch, and room for Keith to run slightly amok is built into it)–and generously giving the crowd its own unrepeatable experience. Maybe that wasn’t really true; maybe the occasional “sloppiness” was itself part of the script. But I doubt it, or in any case I’m not cynical enough to believe it. The Stones have been doing this so long that they can actually get up in front of 40,000 people and improvise, adjust on the fly if necessary, to a degree. They can even screw up and recover, with barely a blink. In that way, they’re more like athletes than musicians. They are great showmen, too; the production details were chintzy and few–a mostly unadorned stage, a few lame animation sequences, and the occasional firework–and the band did not need them at all. Bright costumes sufficed, and Mick even spent long portions of the show in all black. They gave huge energy to this thing they could easily have just phoned in. They were sincere–sincere about their work, even if perhaps totally jaded about everything else, even if totally detached and uninterested and hating each other. They are completely above all of that, including their own contempt, for everything or anything, which may very well be massive by now.

Jagger tried a couple of times to make between-song local-color patter about where he was. “Are there any Wolfpacks here?” he asked the Raleigh crowded, botching the word, thus the syntax and everything attached to it. Later he said he was glad to be back in the “RTP Triangle,” another howler. He confirmed, lamely, that we like sports around here. It was interesting to me, later, that he went out of his way to ask specifically if there was anyone from Durham in the house. Met with a mere smattering of cheers (he was too far away to hear me!), he said, somewhat disappointed, “Not so many,” and quickly moved on, perhaps abandoning some further routine he had planned. Durham, where Jagger and Wood (and perhaps the rest of the Stones) were apparently staying at the Washington Duke Hotel, was apparently too hip for the Stones, or just too small to make a dent in the audience. (But if we think we’re too hip, we might want to ask ourselves why it was possible for Pat Benatar to be playing the Carolina Theatre on the very same night; not to mention wonder at the very existence of DPAC, and its popularity. It’s not just people from other counties going there.) He made reference to the Stones’ first show in Raleigh, fifty years ago, and claimed to have gone back and read reviews of another long-ago show here. It’s immaterial to me that he may have been fed all of this by a PR handler (although my wife found evidence that Jagger is a staunch researcher, and I bet he at least appreciates that his band has been coming here since, basically, Jim Crow). It’s also immaterial to me that he messed up the local details, which he would have been better served to omit entirely. We were there to see the Stones, not for the Stones to see us. As the very tour title–“The ZIP Code Tour”–implies, we were just a place to mail it in. What was satisfying about the show is that they didn’t do that.

I had some things to say about how generous the Stones were with their backing band; some of the members are longtime stalwarts, like bassist Darryl Jones, whom I first saw in Sting tour documentary Bring on the Night in the mid-eighties. Almost everyone got solos and so forth, but the main thing is in this detail, which says something about the security of the band’s collective (and individual) ego: the moment of the show that really brought the house down was when Lisa Fischer, who is herself pretty famous, and has been part of the Stones’ touring band since 1989–about half of the band’s existence–finished off her tour de force duet with Mick on “Gimme Shelter” all the way down at the end of the catwalk, and the crowd went nuts.

The question, of course, is why the Stones keep at it after all these years. Yes, they probably have major expenses and need to keep making millions of dollars, or think they do. Yes, they have competitive egos and don’t want anyone catching up with them as the most important rock band on earth, much in the same way (to make a local, Jagger-prompted sports comparison) Mike Krzyzewski could easily retire as the most famous and greatest college basketball coach of all time, but won’t. He can still do it, after all, as well as he ever has: he’s the reigning champion, as the Stones once again proved they were last night.

You could also make the case, a reasonably sound one, I think, that the Rolling Stones’ job is to be the Rolling Stones, which includes going on tour sometimes. But they could just as easily retire if they wanted to. I think the answer may have its roots in something that sounds much simpler, almost humdrum–but actually, when you ponder it, runs deeper than any of the foregoing explanations, and it’s on the Stones’ own website. A quote from Keith:

“There’s one thing that we haven’t yet achieved, and that’s to really find out how long you can do this… So we’ve got to find out, you know?”

The Stones operate in a world few other bands, few other people, ever get to, and they’ve endured in that world longer than most minds can possibly imagine. Public performance and its attendant craziness so overwhelmed the Beatles that they stopped touring in 1966, before they made their greatest albums. The notorious excesses and ravages of the rock life have done in countless other bands, cut short careers and lives–as has, of course, more simply, a loss of popularity, that most mysterious and devilish of favors to which, we sometimes think, the Stones sold their souls. But the Stones showed that they still had soul last night, not to mention popularity, and their perpetual active presence isn’t a matter of sheer survival, which at this point the Stones have proven they’ve mastered–and have the almost limitless resources to prolong, as a functioning corporation, until Charlie, Keith and Mick die. (Don’t forget that Ron Wood didn’t join the band until 1975; they can carry on without him.)

No, I think it’s a more ontological question. I think the question Keith is asking, despite using the word “do”–to really find out how long you can do this–is less one of duty and act than it is of sheer being. The enormous odds, not to mention demands, against being a Rolling Stone, and the Rolling Stones, are absurd. The band’s almost accidental greatness, an unbearable unlikeliness of being, puts these men in an almost impossible state of existence, in orbit around reality even when they go into restaurants through their kitchens. They are bigger than, and thus unattached to, every single place they go and all the humans they encounter, whether face to face with a bartender or playing for 40,000 people and, in effect, the entire world. They have an unearthly existence on earth, although they are earthlings. Every morning, when they wake up and perform themselves again, they extend some kind of record that they themselves hold, whose quality and meaning only they will ever be able to understand. No one else will ever see, or feel, or know, or be, anything like it.

A Speech

Composed in My Head but not Delivered during Meeting for Worship to Honor Carolina Friends School’s 50th Birthday.

A certain word has been on my mind since last night, when I had a conversation with Hallie and Dave, who are here today with their daughter, Eliza, whom I adore. And then it came to mind again when I walked into the Center building this morning and saw the risers and lights — a performance space, basically — and then heard Nicky Kitchen play so beautifully. The setting reminded me that, although I have no documentation to prove it, in 1989, during the musical Working, which is a musical about sticking it to the man, or wanting to stick it to the man, and which I understand is just about to be performed again in this building under the direction of my former classmate, Brad McDevitt — during a performance, in the role of a steelworker, I became the first person to stand under lights in this building, in front of an audience, and say the word “fuck.”

And I may have just become the second. I don’t know why you’re all tittering! This word is spelled p-h-o-c and is French for “seal,” as my wife, who lived in France for most of a decade and is sitting next to me now, can tell you.

Well, of course that’s not the spelling I’m using, and we all know why that word makes us uncomfortable. There’s a wonderful anecdote told by John Cheever in the introduction to his collected short stories. He describes how his editor at The New Yorker, Harold Ross, discovered that Cheever would jump nearly out of his seat every time Ross used that word; so Ross would keep using it just to watch Cheever jump.

In other words, the effect I got with that word was intended. It made a lot of you jump, figuratively or literally. I think part of the reason why this word still has the power to do that is that we don’t quite know what it means or where it came from. It certainly does not stand for “Fornication Under the Crown of the King,” which a spurious etymology. It might have been Old German or Old Norse for “strike” or something like that, but we really don’t know, and so we don’t know, rationally, why the word strikes us the way it does. So this word is radical in the truest sense of the word: it is its own root, and it could mean anything, including the worst thing we could think of, which we can never bring ourselves to do. The word substitutes for whatever that worst thing is at any given moment. This is its power.

Its radical quality is why the word is still on my mind, because as we observe Carolina Friends School’s 50th birthday, and as I listen to Jim’s history of the school and its environment, I’m thinking of CFS’s radical origins. As a student here, I was steeped in the school’s peaceable philosophy; later, as a teacher, I was charged with passing it on to the middle-schoolers I taught. And what I always tried to stay aware of, and am reminded of today, is that, although the pedagogical engine of CFS has long run on flower-power, and although it rightly preaches peace, love and understanding, and although it celebrates the light in everyone — although it is in short a hippy-dippy place, for lack of a better phrase; I mean, this was a school where you could take batik, for credit — despite all of this swords-into-ploughshares, granola-bar goodness, CFS was founded as a fierce resistance movement, in radical opposition to its time.

It’s easy, fifty years on, to see that the segregated South, the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, was a blatantly unjust, hideously inhumane culture — so easy that we have managed to quarantine most of its wrongs in the history books we give our students to read. We see so clearly that barring people from using certain water fountains or sitting in certain seats on the bus — or hanging them in public without trials — because of the color of their skin is almost barbarically narrowminded. We see this so clearly that we don’t even see it. Racial justice is the pane of glass through which most of life is observed — not all of it, of course. We live in a world that is still sometimes deeply racist, as Ferguson proves, as Walter Scott in Charleston proves, as Eric Garner in Staten Island proves.

But isn’t it true that these seem like tragic exceptions now? Awful ones, to be sure, ones that warn of a flicker of evil, but fires we have the moral, political, legal and cultural means to extinguish. In the late fifties, we did not. Racial hatred was institutional, not exceptional, and often quite nonviolent. The worst oppression is what does not burn in sight but smolders unseen — oppression that’s daily, ordinary, habitual, almost banal: water fountains, bus rides, ballparks, and schools. CFS began as a challenge to this kind of oppression. It stared the dominant culture in the face and said: This is not the mold we want to fit into, nor our children to fit into.

But rather than try to break this mold, which no small community, which CFS is, can realistically hope to do, the Klopfers and their cohort built their own mold. And they said, anyone who wants to come and join us in this resistance to authority, this stance against the norm, is welcome. And they staked their property on it. In America, where property has always been our cultural and political god, that is about as radical as you can get.

The famous Schopenhauer quote tells us that truth goes through three stages: first it is ridiculed, then it is violently opposed, and then it is accepted as self-evident. The truth CFS was telling 50 years ago, that we are all created equal, is now mostly accepted as self-evident, although we must still fight for this equality every day.

And there are other truths that haven’t been spoken yet. They probably seem ordinary, the norm, everyday; maybe we don’t really even think of them much because we are so entrenched in them — we don’t recognize how darkly we look through the glass. But there are wrongs all around us that have to be combated. The charter of CFS — what it tasks all of us with — was and still is this: Where we see something that is unjust, cruel or morally profane, we must stand up to this cussedness and say, in the noblest sense, Fuck This.

To Eliza and all of our students, I will say: I hope you will use this word appropriately, necessarily. To everyone else here, and to myself, on this day that marks a half-century of CFS, I assign this mission: to do more than just utter this word; that is, having once uttered it, make change; and, most importantly, having made that change, devote ourselves to the work of sustaining it.